Only some of this is about Jeremy Clarkson

Try to forget one man and his silly comments.

This was going to be a post about Jeremy Clarkson. About how I like Clarkson: as right-wing writers go, he's rather good. (He's no PJ O'Rourke, no matter how desperately hard he tries, but he makes me chuckle. I hereby ask for my "The Left" membership card to be rescinded immediately.)

This isn't a case of: "First they came for the Clarksons, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a jowly denim-clad petrolhead oaf roaring half-baked grandstanding silliness to needle-dicked losers who like cars." This is just a silly man saying silly things, exaggerating them to make them sound sillier.

Wouldn't you know it, he's got a book out as well; I'm sure this entirely coincidental controversy might shift a few units. The more people get outraged, the more of them will probably be sold, and the more money he'll make. See how Clarkson nourishes himself by licking your salt tears of outrage; see how your hate has made him powerful.

I was going to expand on all of that, but then I saw the news, and Clarkson's comments being the lead item on the news, and it depressed me entirely. Thousands upon thousands of people all over the country got together yesterday to battle against the Government, yet because one person says some tedious trolling deliberately controversial load of old guff to flog a few books, that's shifted the entire focus of public debate. Doesn't that depress you?

This suits The Right (well, if they can use capitals and huge overgeneralisations, I don't see why I can't, so I'm using "The Right" to mean "everyone I don't like, from Ronald Reagan to Ronald McDonald, tainting everyone with the actions of the people I dislike the most") very well indeed. They might like to make the feeble suggestion that 30 November was a damp squib, but it wasn't -- it was popular, powerful and impressive.

I was out there on the picket lines, seeing the numbers at rallies and hearing about the passionate reasons why moderate workers had decided to take action. It wasn't because some nasty spectral bully in charge of their union had forced them into it; it was because they were fed up with what had been handed out to them, and why the public sector had been scapegoated and picked on by the Coalition to pay extra pensions that wouldn't even go into their pension pots.

These people weren't the usual leftie troublemakers stirring up disaffected workers; these were hardworking taxpayers who'd had enough of being squeezed dry.

These were men and women who simply did not buy the Government's line that we were all going to have to do our bit in these troubled times -- and I heard time and time again the comparison made between the pensions of those who had caused this crisis, those MPs who had failed their country, and those who were now being targeted as having 'gold-plated' futures. People aren't buying the Coalition's line, and that should be of real concern to them; it's not just the strikers and their natural sympathisers who have worked that out, either.

I had written, before 30 November, that the strikes risked drawing a wedge between similarly badly-treated groups of private and public sector workers unless they could appeal to as broad a range of people as possible. Looking at it now, I don't think those fears were justified. I heard many speakers and union members talking about the need to make private sector pensions fairer, the need for private and public sector workers to unite against the common enemy in Government, and the desire to ensure this didn't become a conflict between groups of employees.

Let's focus on that. Let's focus on the success of 30 November, and what it means for the future. The public don't trust the Government, despite the cheerleading for the Tory agenda and the hissing at the strikers from the usual sections of the press. Striking might upset some, but it has the support of many. Forget one man and his silly comments -- the debate about Clarkson is just what the Government would like to happen, to draw attention away from their miserably poor attempts to demonise strikers.

Don't let them get away with it. Otherwise, you should be taken outside and shot in front of your kids.



Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.